InspiHERed By: Vanessa Rochelle Lewis
InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each month ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This month ELIXHER spotlights 28-year-old writer, artist, and teacher Vanessa Rochelle Lewis, also known as Jezebel Delilah X.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
VANESSA: Well, I’m a queer, femme-identified, Black womyn. I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to the Bay area a few months before I turned 21 in 2005. I received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in creative writing, with a focus in creative non-fiction and young adult literature. I currently teach basic skills reading and writing at a two community colleges in the East Bay, theatre to middle school aged womyn, and poetry for liberation workshops. I am a writer, actress, performance artist, and filmmaker. I also exist deeply in my own fantasy realm and consider myself to be a faerie princess mermaid gangsta. I think these identities are expressions of my femininity, my power, my prowess, and my rage.
As a dark skinned, fat, queer child – I never felt beautiful. In fact, I was told all the time that I was ugly; that the only thing desirable about me was my intellect, and so I assertively pursued harvesting that. I denied and fought every element of femininity in me and focused on my brain. Now, I’m still invested in the cultivation of my curiosity and creative/critical reflection, but I’m just as invested in my sense of beauty, of self-love and worth, of physical and sexual celebration.
Interestingly, people often ask me if the title of “princess” implies hierarchy. It doesn’t. Not in any way. But it’s a recognition of things strong and powerful, but also cute and delicate in me. And, well, gangsta: I grew up in the hood and I’m proud of my community, of my recent and herstorical heritage. Like gangstas are ride or die for their set, I feel the same way for liberation, for the destruction of capitalism, for the liberation of my intersectional communities.
ELIXHER: You describe yourself as a queer, femme, feminist. How do those identities help shape one another and the work that makes you sparkle?
VANESSA: Well, my femme-identity is rooted deeply in being socialized in an urban, African American community. I believe my gender is far more informed by my socio-cultural background than my sexuality. But it is my queerness, and my lesbian feminism, that complicates the way I engage with my Black womynhood.
So, in so many ways, my queerness and feminism is a way to identify as afrocentric, but also to recognize the oppression of womynhood and to honor the sublimity of our inner divine Goddessness. My liberation looks like working towards chipping away the sophistication of this violent society that raised and reared me in order to fully nourish my power, to meet and revere in the power of every other womyn I encounter.
ELIXHER: I heard you are working to found a radical printing press. Could you tell me more about the project and the process?
VANESSA: Yes! Deviant Type Press began with Tomas Muniz and Annah Anti-Pallindrome as a response to their attempts at/experiences of publishing their work. There is a strong need to publish work by authors who are not getting published as frequently as they should: queer writers, feminist writers, POC writers, writers interested in genre-fucking and hybrid texts. We’re looking for authors, who are marginalized by the publishing industrial complex, who want to create publish complicated, brilliant art.
Further, we’re working towards and for social justice. We recognize that art is a form of justice, of economic equality, of radical change. We also believe in taking away the power from institutions and corporations to affirm what is aesthetically or socially important, and recognizing that WE are the experts of our own lives.
ELIXHER: You were involved in the touring Poetic Liberation Collective. How do you feel like the experience of performing as part of a collective has influenced your performance style?
VANESSA: I am 100% attracted to collectivity. I exist through collectivism. I work as a part of a collective. I live in a radical, queer, arts and social justice, collective house. As a polyamorous person, I even love collectively. When I was a part of the Poetic Liberation Collective, I was deeply in love with the artists I was working with. The way I wanted to grow, to challenge myself, to challenge the world was inspired by their art, their politic, their love. I felt like I was making art and familyship simultaneously, and I realized that family-intimacy-love is my priority. I prioritize love and relation to art, because I can’t make art without my source.
ELIXHER: What are three adjectives that best describe the art that you want to create?
VANESSA: Vulnerable. Healing. Uncomfortable
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the black queer community? What changes would you like to see in the community?
VANESSA: I want to see us more intentionally devoted to each other. I want to see us make love to ourselves, and to each other, through the process of opening hearts and minds. Through forgiveness and love. I want us to hold ourselves tight, include each other in our prayers, prioritize human life to ideology and religion. I want to see us liberate ourselves from Eurocentric complacency and heteronormativity. I want to see us disassociate ourselves with capitalism to the best of our ability.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Vanessa Rochelle Lewis?
VANESSA: I will be performing for the Queer Rebels for the Harlem Renaissance in San Francisco June 28 – 30. I will be hosting an Erotica Reading at Feelmore510: Adult Novelty Store through Beast Crawl on July 7th. I am also co-host of Culture Fuck, a feminist, anti-racist, queer reading series that takes place on the second Saturday of every month at Sonoma Coffee Cafe.
You can get in touch with Vanessa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interview by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, scholar, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.